In this previous blog post, we explored the importance of learning progressions as a framework for designing professional development (PD). Essentially, when we coordinate PD around specific goals, we can scaffold professional learning towards those goals, integrating multiple modes of learning and support throughout the school year. This approach to PD can transform teachers and schools to make ambitious goals attainable.
Recognizing the potential impact of learning progressions is straightforward; where the challenging and complicated work lies is in creating and implementing a meaningful learning progression plan.
The following tips can help you create a learning progression plan for your school or district.
1. Determine Your Top School- or District-Wide Goals
The first and most important step to creating learning progressions is to identify school or district-wide goals. Without clear academic or instructional goals, professional development sessions lack a north star.
It’s the same in the classroom: without grounding our lesson plans in clear learning objectives that connect to specific goals and outcomes within a unit, our students leave each class with different learnings–or no learnings at all. Teachers, too, need a clear goal to understand the intended instructional outcomes of PD sessions.
The bigger question, though, is how do we determine school or district-wide goals? Of course, principals start the year with some goals already in mind, whether to address a concern from the previous year or to kickstart a new initiative. Sometimes leaders come up with these goals themselves, other times they are following directives. But in the days before school starts, teachers attend pre-service PDs, and school administrators present them with the goals or curriculum for the upcoming school year. Without any input or collaboration from staff, teachers can feel disempowered by- and disconnected from- those goals. Even worse, these instructional goals can be rejected altogether.
Another more collaborative and successful approach would be for school leaders to engage staff in the process of creating these academic and instructional goals before the year starts. As the school year comes to a close, invite teachers and staff to share reflections from the year: What went well? What didn’t go well? Where did you see students excel and where did you see them struggle? What ideas do you have for next school year? What curriculum worked, what didn’t? Use your teachers’ and staff’s response to these questions as a guide when considering the goals for the following academic year. Not only will the goals be more attuned to your specific needs, but teachers will feel more involved and engaged, and therefore work harder to help reach those targets.
2. Identify the Current Strengths and Weaknesses at Your School
While no one likes to focus on their weaknesses, identifying them is the first step towards improvement. After identifying your goals, school leaders should take inventory of the current strengths and areas of improvement. While there are many ways to conduct this process, here are a few suggestions:
- Teacher reflection: Invite teachers to self-reflect on their own strengths and areas of improvement in relation to the school or district goals. Ask them what support they might need. Ask them what support they might be able to offer colleagues. Hearing directly from teachers helps to engage them further in the planning process.
- Informal or formal observations: Conducting informal or formal observations through the lens of your academic or instructional goals can provide on-the-ground insight into where teachers might need more professional learning and where they are already excelling.
- School Climate Survey: a school climate survey completed by the staff and school families will give you great insight into the less tangible aspects of what is working–and what isn’t. These surveys usually ask questions that can be pieced together to form an overall opinion about the school and it’s teachers.
This high level of introspection will also help you understand the strengths of your school. Are there teachers that stand out during observations or in the survey that should be given leadership roles? Are there aspects of your school culture that are absolutely working? Understanding the strengths and weaknesses at your school will help you create goal-aligned PD sessions that also fit in with where your staff needs the most support.
3. Backwards Design
After your school or district has developed clear goals and identified strengths / weaknesses around which to create professional development, it is time to start planning your learning progression for the school year.
It’s helpful to think about planning learning progressions in the same way that teachers think about unit planning: backwards design. Consider: With your goals in mind, what learning opportunities do your teachers and staff need to help meet those goals? With your staff’s strengths and areas of improvement identified, what foundational skills and strategies need to anchor your learning progression?
It’s also important to think about learning progressions as more than individual PD sessions. Hands-on workshops, instructional coaching, school leader coaching, and asynchronous courses are all options that provide multiple modes and levels of professional support.
Designing thoughtful and strategic learning progressions is hard work–but it is worth it. The impact on teacher practice and student achievement is proven and powerful. It is an investment and a commitment to your teachers, your students, and your district.